RFU sacrifices northern presence as Premier 15s reduced to eight sides

RFU sacrifices northern presence as Premier 15s reduced to eight sides

The Allianz Premier 15 will drop from 10 to eight clubs next season and will have no teams from the North as the Rugby Football Union announced the results of its tendering process on Friday.

Leicester Tigers and Ealing Trailfinders are among eight clubs selected by the RFU to play in England’s premier women’s rugby competition from the 2023/24 season, but four teams are currently involved – Wasps, Worcester, Sale and Darlington Mowden Park ( DMP ) Sharks – were all dropped in a major blow to the development of women’s rugby in the North of England.

Bristol, Exeter, Gloucester-Hartpury, Harlequins, Saracens and Loughborough Lightning/Northampton Saints will retain their Premier 15 status and will make up the remainder of the eight-team league “subject to the signing of shareholder and other agreements”.

“The league has capacity for ten teams and although a number of clubs have not yet been selected to participate at this stage, there is a possibility that clubs could join the league at a later date,” the RFU said in a statement. “The RFU and Women’s Premier 15 Ltd (WP15) will continue to work with these clubs on their potential to participate in the league.

“The selection panel also strongly recommended that the RFU and WP15 explore ways to achieve greater geographic diversification in the league. This process will begin in January, when discussions will take place with clubs and institutions, and will form part of the wider review of England’s women’s RFU competition structure.

DMP chose not to make a formal offer amid the increase in investment required as part of the minimum standards set by the RFU, but Sale is “devastated” at not having been picked into next season’s league, especially without northern teams including the eight that were successful.

“We felt our submission met the criteria set out by the RFU and demonstrated the commitment everyone at the club has to our women’s team and women’s football in general,” said Sale CEO Sid Sutton. “As a result, everyone at Sale Sharks is absolutely devastated by today’s decision.

“We are all disappointed that despite a stated desire to ensure a ‘wider geographical spread’ of teams, the Premier 15 will not have representation in the North from 2023-24, but as a club we remain firm and passionate about growth and support commits the women’s game in the north of England.”

Clubs that have not been offered a place in next season’s league can appeal, a process the RFU hopes to complete by the end of February 2023.

Bath is “very disappointed” after the unsuccessful application and is considering an appeal.

Worcester is also expected to appeal, with team operations manager Josh Payne saying: “We are determined to find a way forward with the RFU and secure one of the remaining two positions in the competition next season.”

Charlie Hayter, RFU Women’s Rugby Performance Manager, said: “This process is part of the 10-year strategy for the Premier 15, which aims to build on the success of the current league and continue to see the league as the most competitive, progressive and sustainable league to advance in the world. We want to create a league that inspires both players and fans and continues to develop talented athletes at the highest level.

“This will happen concurrently with work on a broader women’s and girls’ plan to accelerate the growth of women’s football in this country.”

Analysis: No northern presence seems myopic and counterintuitive

By Fiona Tomas

And then there were eight – at least for the moment. The news that the Premier 15 are expected to be thickened next season is clear confirmation that managing an elite women’s rugby side in England is becoming increasingly expensive.

Of the four current Premier 15 teams banned from the women’s top flight, Sale Sharks have come as the biggest shock. For a club that only formed their women’s side two seasons ago, the Mancun side will feel distressed, particularly as they were the only real hope of keeping women’s rugby union alive in the north of England.

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